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Tensions high at the Tennessee Capitol as hundreds protest for more gun restrictions

Demonstrators gathered in the lobby of the Tennessee State Capitol during Thursday's legislative sessions.
Blaise Gainey
Demonstrators gathered in the lobby of the Tennessee State Capitol during Thursday's legislative sessions.

Well over 1,000 people gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol early Thursday morning for a demonstration in favor of more restrictions on guns.

Their plan: to be as disturbingly loud as possible in hopes of getting the attention of state lawmakers.

And while it worked, the only lawmakers to really pay them attention were the ones who often voice the same opinions. Reps. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville; Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville; and Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, were seen overlooking the crowd and seemingly giving a signal to continue.

Among the demonstrators outside was Nihri Da Silva. She said she is a former student at Covenant School and a cousin of Akilah Da Silva, a victim of the 2018 Waffle House shooting.

“Both situations were way too close, being that the memorial for the Waffle House shooting is next month,” said Da Silva. “So with them being back to back, it’s really hard.”

The demonstration was organized in the wake of Monday’s shooting at Covenant School in Nashville that took the lives of three students, three faculty members and the assailant. Thursday’s legislative sessions were the first days of debate since the shooting.

There were many kids in the crowd, even babies in carriers strapped to their parents. One woman was in attendance with her son, 11-year-old John Hollis Chester. He said America being so pro-gun scares him.

“There’s a bunch of bad gun laws,” said Chester. “It’s sad that we have to do all these drills because we’re so used to having these shootings in schools everywhere. So it kind of makes me feel scared and sad.”

Inside the building lawmakers, especially Republicans, tried to treat the day like any other, debating and passing unrelated legislation. That was until protestors in the gallery of the Senate chamber began to chant, “Children are dead and you don’t care.”

Quickly Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, asked for them to be removed.

One of those protestors was Janet Maykus, the pastor at Eastwood Christian Church in Nashville. She was turned off that Republican leaders would not speak about the school shooting.

“Is anybody going to say anything? Is anybody going to do anything? Or are we just going to keep having weapons of war on the streets?” Maykus said.

She says the only response she’s heard from Republican lawmakers is that mental health should be prioritized. But she doesn’t think they believe that fully either.

“[If] you’re so concerned about mental health, then every single person who buys a gun should have an extensive mental health background [check],” said Maykus.

After the Senate adjourned, McNally and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said they had spoken with Gov. Bill Lee about making funds available for “school hardening” — measures such as secure doors, security cameras and emergency planning.

Over in the House, floor debate was briefly halted as tempers flared. State Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, used a megaphone on the House floor to lead protesters in a chant. Both adults and kids could be heard chanting along with him.

Reps. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, were holding signs and chanting along with Jones. Johnson says they were acting as an extension to the demonstrations outside.

“All we did was walk up there between bills to be heard to acknowledge the voices that we were hearing so that we can represent our districts and the people of Tennessee,” said Johnson.

But that prompted a confrontation with Democratic leadership. Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, pulled the three lawmakers into a room to, in her words, “bring down the temperature.”

“That was my goal. To try to just calm the situation,” said Camper.

But easing the tension may not have saved the trio from impending consequences. House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, was upset.

“What took place on this House floor is unacceptable behavior and it needs to be dealt with,” said Sexton.

It’s unclear what that punishment will be. Lawmakers and staffers for state Democrats speculate it could be an expulsion.

Blaise Gainey is a Political Reporter for WPLN News. He is the youngest of three siblings, husband and father of two. He previously held the State Government Reporter position for WFSU News in Tallahassee. He is from Apopka, Fla., and graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He previously worked for The Florida Channel and WTXL-TV. He is excited to move to another capital and report on state government. In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, outdoor activities and enjoying family time.
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